The Budget and Our Schools
Jack Evans Report
I voted in support of the 2014 budget this week, because it was a big step in the right direction for our city. From education and the arts to affordable housing and public safety to tax relief for seniors and all of our residents, all stakeholders in our city should feel like they did well this budget cycle. It doesn’t hurt, of course, when the chief financial officer announces a couple of days before the final vote that there will be millions of “new” dollars available to spend due to our economic recovery. One big focus of mine is our education system. During the past couple of years, I have worked on a number of issues relating to education, such as introducing a bill to mandate that each public school have at least one full time librarian, art teacher, music teacher, and PE teacher. Despite having the highest per-pupil funding formula in the country, our schools seem to be lacking some basic resources.
Another of these basic resources is school libraries. I have heard reports of multi-million dollar school modernization projects being completed, including great new library facilities, but the libraries have no books! All school modernization projects have a built in budgetary cushion in case of cost overruns, so at the budget vote, I moved an amendment to require that excess school modernization funds at the end of a project first be used to purchase an initial circulation of library materials before being diverted to other government projects.
I also worked hard to ensure that Garrison and Francis-Stevens remained open after they were initially put on the school closure list. More recently, I fought to restore full funding for the Fillmore Arts Center, which provides arts education to many elementary students in the District. I heard from many distraught parents throughout the city when the original decision to cut funding for Fillmore was announced. Fillmore provides education in drama, music and fine art, and is a gem in the DCPS system.
Fillmore is such an asset to participating schools because it provides a breadth and depth of arts and music offerings beyond what each school could do on its own. This is also a big part of why I support government funding for the arts, in general. Partnerships with entities like the Smithsonian and other local arts organizations fill a critical gap in the arts education available at so many of our public schools. The programs at Fillmore offer the ability for students to participate in dance and drama activities as well as art projects and music instruction, which always seem to be the first things cut in the school system. I want to thank the Chancellor for restoring this important funding.
The budget also included a number of other important education-related items, such as: $11 million to increase early-childhood program infant and toddler slots by 200 and an increase in the quality of existing infant and toddler slots by increasing the child care subsidy rate by 10%; nearly $2 million to expand the school-based mental health program; nearly $800,000 to expand the Metrobus and Metrorail subsidy to include students up to 21 years old if they are still attending high school; $4 million for a new School Technology Fund; $2.8 million to upgrade the DCStars system in the public schools; and $4 million to expand adult literacy and career and technology education programs. We still have quite a way to go to turn around a system that isn’t producing the results that we all expect, but I am encouraged by steps we are taking and the government’s continued commitment to education in this year’s budget.
Finally, I want to at least briefly mention one other budget action. At my initiative, the Council voted to reduce our sales tax from 6% to 5.75%. The sales tax is a regressive tax that the government unwisely chose to increase a couple of years ago, so I am glad to finally return it to its original rate.